The Technique IS the Character

I was talking recently with someone who is working on creating a new juggling act, and they mentioned that they wanted said new act to contain more “character”, and that they wanted to include more stops and pauses: for the purpose of showing that “character”.

Almost as recently, upon introducing myself to a fellow circus performer they asked me what “theme” my juggling act had. My reply of “juggling” left them nonplussed.

Having had to pick my jaw up from the floor on each of these occasions, I realised I could perhaps usefully try (for myself if no-one else) to form my thoughts into some kind of clarity on this matter.

The year is 2011. It was over 30 years ago that nouveau cirque made a clear and, surely at that time, necessary statement about the break they were making from non-nouveau cirque. But I sincerely hope that we are far enough now with the circus arts and their development to understand that we don’t have to justify our time on stage by claiming it to be circus “with theatre”, or “with dance”, or “without horses”. Or “with value added character”. Circus is circus, and it’s practitioners are circus artists.

If we are using the circus arts (circus techniques, as in skills and tricks) to express ourselves, then we owe it to them, and to ourselves, to show them some respect and to create and show work where that technique set is needed. Needed means not added on as a bonus but rather integral to, and defining of, the work. The technique should be a necessity of the performance (and perhaps also the other way round, but that is perhaps a topic for another time).

If technique is integral (which to me is a backbone of circus performance), then technique has a lot of responsibility. It is the major means we have to communicate our intent. I shall repeat that more clearly (and to really stress it, I shall do so by manually re-typing it, rather than using copy and paste): technique is the major tool that we have to communicate our intent.

That doesn’t mean that it should subsume the intent, but that it serves the intent.

If our intention includes the need to create a particular “character” (be that character one of pop-star, ninja, sailor or, dare we even say it, JUGGLER), then I hope it is clear that, although costuming and make-up, or staging and light, are important and valuable factors in our constructs, it is TECHNIQUE that must take the lead. We should innovate in our technique, believe in it, and shouldn’t be scared to trust it to tell an audience more about our intentions and emotional content then any other factor.

After all, love of technique is what drove us in the first place to learn this craft, and I hope that that same love is a factor in keeping us in this crazy, impossible, beautiful, painful, ghastly, inspiring, incredible life that we may call our job.

Innovate your technique: create the right trick for the right moment.

Trust in your tools: and let an audience share that trust.

And always remember: the technique IS the character.

I probably shouldn’t admit this, but….

So, last month I found myself not being able to do my best in performances, it didn’t matter if before the act I had trained until I dropped or if I hadn’t trained at all, didn’t matter if I had a bad day or a great day, when it came to the performance it was flat and the tricks were all over the place. Not at all great for a Handbalancer.

I couldn’t understand it; I had asked everyone ‘what’s going on, do you get it?’ And no one seemed to have the correct answer.

  • In my first act, the more technical act, I was getting unusually tired by the end, wobbling in tricks,  not making certain positions solidly, it’s just wasn’t going right and I couldn’t understand it.
  • In the second act, ‘Mack the Knife’, I’d take my hat off and come down straight away. At the end of the act I’d put my hat on a audience member, go into a one arm next to them (by this time my forearm is pumped) and I ask them to hand the hat back, (stupid mistake – audience members don’t understand anything and they get excited with hats) but again I’d start to fall and not be able to grab the hat put it on my head and walk down the stairs.

Tricks I used to be comfortable and happy with, just failed me, and completely tired me out.

Then one night I performed in Angel in front of circus friends, it was a bit of a laugh and a joke, and a friend of mine (fellow handbalancer) asked me to put in a certain trick -so I added 3 new tricks. 1 I had never performed and 2 I never had done in this act…Well the music messed up to begin with, which I just found funny but the added pressure of having circus people there gave me an incentive to work hard and I played with the audience and really enjoyed myself and nailed all my tricks. Then I went back to the restaurant and it was the same as always, mediocre. A couple weeks later I then performed Mack the Knife at Cafe de Paris, (I had to change the act around because of the new venue). Again this act was back to the good old days, nice and solid, good performance and character, and felt and looked great.

So what was wrong?

I realised I had got bored, I had got complacent, I had got comfortable and stopped trying, I needed something new, new challenges, something to drive me in my performances, something to make me push hard for what I’m doing – not think about what I’m eating for tea, do I need to cut my nails or wow I hope I don’t smell maybe I should have a shower, while I’m performing.

I have now added in 3 new tricks, 1 of which I really struggle with in training but because of the stage and audience it means I have to work harder because I can’t fall, I’m now getting this move quite reasonably. I have always made myself count every 1 arm for 3 seconds until I move but I had forgotten about that so I start doing it again  and its cleaner, it’s more solid it’s what a handbalancer should look like. So I did the same for Mack the Knife, I’ve added in a few little tricks, I’ve added in a few more little character moments and started to enjoy it and have fun.

And last night I performed my act the best I ever have, flat Mana, legs together in a side 1 arm 3 seconds solid and clean. Now this is how it should always be.

When they talk about success they talk about reaching the top. Well…. There is no top. You’ve got to go on… not stop at any point.